With the signing of Vladimir Guerrero this winter, I sensed an unusual amount of optimism surrounding not just the potential of the Orioles as a whole, but also as to what Guerrero could accomplish this year in an Orioles uniform. It seemed like a lot of fans were evaluating the signing of Guerrero based on his successful past rather than what the future holds for him.
As a disclaimer, I did not like the Guerrero signing from the beginning. I essentially thought the value of continuing to figure out whether Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold could be solid everyday left fielders was much higher than signing an aging designated hitter to an expensive one-year deal, considering that the Orioles are not ready to compete. I also thought that $8 million could have been much better served towards the draft and international scouting.
But that’s all moot, as Guerrero will be the Orioles’ everyday designated hitter, which is where we get back to what Guerrero could realistically do this summer for the Orioles. I get the feeling that some Orioles fans think they’ve gotten a true masher and cleanup hitter, but that’s probably not the case, at least in my view.
Don’t get me wrong – Guerrero was once a fantastic hitter and could be (will be?) headed to Cooperstown one day. He’s put up a career triple-slash line of .320/.383/.563 with 436 homers, and has accumulated 61.7 WAR during his career, according to Fangraphs. But what can a 36-year-old Guerrero accomplish in 2011, when he’s well past his prime with diminishing skills?
In a February interview with Steve Melewski of MASN Sports, Keith Law of ESPN addressed his concerns about Guerrero at this point in his career:
“Just watching him, the bat speed is gone, or mostly gone. He can’t use his lower half. Ever since he first hurt his back and his knees about two, two and half years ago with the Angels, he hasn’t been the same guy.
“I don’t see any reason that, at his age, why it’s going to come back. We heard last year he was healthy and he got off to a hot start in April. And it didn’t last. And I don’t see any reason he’s going to do better than that now that he is a year older.”
I’m obviously not a scout, so I’ll defer to the former Toronto Blue Jays’ front office member in Law on Guerrero’s skill-set, and Law seems very much down on Guerrero’s ability to produce over course of six months with declining bat speed and a history of knee trouble. As for Guerrero’s production, it’s been in decline for awhile now, and last year was a clear outlier. Here’s Guerrero’s production over the past four years, with 2007 being his age-32 season:
|Year||Plate Appearances||BA/OBP/SLG||Home Runs||Fangraphs WAR|
Since the end of 2007, his production has been going down aside from an early-season surge last year. And aside from the home runs, 2010 wasn’t really that much of a rebound from 2009. And after the all-star break last year, Guerrero hit .278/.322/.426 with nine homers – production that fits in with the kind of consistent decline that Guerrero has shown since the end of the 2007 season.
In 2009 and 2010, the notoriously free-swinging Guerrero barely walked at all, with walk rates coming in at 4.7 and 5.4 percent, making his on-base percentage very batting average-dependent. That’s always a red flag, but it would seem especially so with Guerrero’s age rising and skills declining.
And remember, designated hitters have to really hit in order to be valuable players. It’s not like at shortstop, where the .841 OPS Guerrero put up last year would look fantastic. As a designated hitter, that looks flat-out ordinary, which Guerrero’s 2.6 fWAR last year – hardly poor, but hardly awe-inspiring, either – would seem to indicate, as well.
Factor in Guerrero’s expected decline and, assuming he doesn’t get injured and gets a full slate of plate appearances with the Orioles (for the sake of argument, since those are big assumptions, considering his age and past injuries), Guerrero could be in line, in my opinion, for something right back around 2009 levels. That would make him around a one-win player. Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies is predicting that Guerrero will hit .291/.336/.467 with a 1.1 WAR, which seems about right to me.
Considering the Guerrero signing pushed Luke Scott to left field, Pie to the bench and Reimold to Triple-A Norfolk, that gain of one win could be washed out by the downgrade defensively in left field, especially when taking into account Pie’s range.
I’m sure, though, that Guerrero will break 20 homers, especially given that Camden Yards being is a hitter’s park (and maybe more so for right-handed hitters — that 364-foot power alley in left is awfully friendly). I’ll say Guerrero settles on 22 homers, but not much in the way of on-base percentage.
Guerrero surely brings a huge reputation to Baltimore, but it’s hard for me to think that he’ll be bringing significant production along with him in 2011, even if the hype surrounding his signing would made it seem like Guerrero was destined for a monster offensive year that would help lift the Orioles markedly in the standings.